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What does it mean when a person says "I have to go on a mission trip for a week", and the mission trip destination is in the United States of America, the person's home country?

I have the impression that a mission trip can actually be a missionary activity. Yet, I also have the impression that a mission trip is just a fun excursion or camping trip.

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  • Good question. And "mission trip" is not to be confused with "mission" (which is what Mormon missionaries go on for 18-24 months, for example).
    – Matt
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 18:56
  • I admit that I heard the term "mission trip" being used by the TA when my professor said that he had to go on one, taking a week off from teaching and going to a state in the Midwest. I did not know what the TA meant, and I didn't bother asking, because it seemed to be off-topic. I consulted a librarian, but that only gave me a vague image of humanitarian volunteer work.
    – Double U
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 2:04

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A mission trip should always include missionary activity. The activity itself is widely varied and does not require international travel: it can include volunteer work, evangelism, teaching, or a number of other things. The words "mission trip" speak to the purpose of the trip, not the activity of the trip. The mission of a mission trip is to, either directly or indirectly, lead people toward God.

Oftentimes, these trips are exciting. A person's motive for going on a mission trip, as with all things, is complex. One of my pastor friends calls secondary motives, which everyone has to some degree, a "shadow mission". For example, say there is a mission trip planned to build a house in Mexico with Casas Por Cristo. The mission is to build a house for a poor family in the name of Jesus Christ, with the hope that the family receiving the house and people in that area would be positively affected by Christianity. Casas Por Cristo works with local pastors to evangelize to the area; the people on the mission trip simply provide the labor (and money) to build the house itself. A shadow mission for someone attending the trip may be to experience international travel, or spend time with a cute girl also on the trip, or to appear spiritual, or to have fun.

I only mention the idea of a "shadow mission" to explain why you may get the impression that it is "just a fun excursion or camping trip." When that pastor would take college students on mission trips, he would urge them to evaluate their own shadow missions and to be aware that the true mission is leading people toward God.

Mission trips are generally short-term events. Most trips are two weeks long or less, though trips can certainly be longer, up to a year or so. Anything that is a year or longer is usually categorized as long-term missions, performed by a missionary.

Here are examples of mission trips:

  • Spending a week in Mexico building a house
  • Repairing a church building in Honduras
  • Working in a Russian orphanage
  • Smuggling Bibles into China or other closed countries
  • Helping clean up after Hurricane Sandy
  • Spending a week in San Francisco handing out gospel tracts and talking to people about God
  • Traveling 2 hours to a youth camp to repair/build cabins

Here are examples of things that are not mission trips.

  • Going to a Christian concert
  • Attending a Christian summer camp
  • Going camping with the Youth Group at your church
  • Driving to Disney World with a church group to ride rollercoasters
  • Watching a Christian movie at a theater with other Christians

That said, it is common in a one or two-week mission trip to include a fun day on the way home (which may be going to Disney World, seeing a concert, going to the beach, etc.).

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  • Casas Por Cristo sounds like the Spanish version of *Habitat for Humanity", which is a Christian house ministry. After every house-building, there would be a traditional, solemn ceremony, sometimes offering a copy of the Bible to the new homeowners.
    – Double U
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 1:58
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The Great Commission refers to Matthew 28:18-20 where Jesus commands His disciples to go to all nations. Acts 1:8 gives more details on this mission, though, and needs to be considered. In this verse, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be His witnesses to 1) Jerusalem, and 2) in all Judea and Samaria and 3) to the ends of the earth.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 ESV

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8 ESV

From Acts 2 through Acts 7, the mission took place solely in Jerusalem. After Acts 7 and the stoning of Stephen as the first Christian martyr, the disciples were scattered "throughout all Judea and Samaria", thus ushering in the second phase of the mission.

And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Acts 8:1 ESV

In Acts 10, Cornelius, a Gentile, is brought to faith in Jesus. This, along with the sending out of Paul, ushered in the third phase of the mission.

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Acts 10:34-35 ESV (Peter's assessment of Cornelius' faith)

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3 ESV

Today, many evangelicals view the same three parts of the mission as applicable to each of us, specifically that we are called to go to our own Jerusalem (our own people), to our own Judea and Samaria (perhaps Native Americans and other cultures within our own borders just as the Samaritans were to the Jews) and then also to the ends of the earth.

Thus, going on a mission trip for a week within a person's home country is perfectly reasonable, as it could be considered part of the second aspect of the Great Commission. I have personally gone on a trip to a different culture within the borders of the United States. I have also taken groups overseas for two weeks at a time, and that certainly counts as well.

It should be noted, however, that a mission trip is not merely going camping or doing something fun. The purpose of a mission trip should be tied to the Great Commission. This would include evangelistic activities and humanitarian efforts as well, as we are commanded to remember the poor. Jesus Himself commends those who fed those who were hungry and clothed those who were naked.

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